ROME — A barge carrying a crane and other equipment hitched itself to the toppled Costa Concordia on Tuesday, signaling the start of preliminary operations to remove a half-million gallons of fuel from the grounded cruise ship before it leaks into the pristine Tuscan sea.
Actual pumping of the oil isn’t expected to begin until Saturday, but officials from the Dutch shipwreck salvage firm Smit were working on the bow of the Concordia on Tuesday, making preparations to remove the fuel.
They were at work as divers located another body from the wreckage, bringing the death toll to 16.
Officials have identified an initial six tanks that will be tapped, located in a relatively easy-to-reach area of the ship. Franco Gabrielli, head of the national civil protection agency, told reporters Tuesday that once the tanks are emptied, 50 percent of the fuel aboard the ship will have been extracted.
The pumping will continue 24 hours a day barring rough seas or technical glitches in this initial phase, he said.
“This is a complicated operation,” Gabrielli warned. Smit has estimated the extraction operation could last a month.
The Concordia ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan island of Giglio on Jan. 13 after the captain veered from his approved course and gashed the ship’s hull on a reef, forcing the panicked evacuation of 4,200 passengers and crew.
So far 16 bodies have been found, including one located on the third floor deck on Tuesday. At least six of the badly decomposed bodies remain unidentified, and are presumed to be among some of the 17 passengers and crew still unaccounted for.
Divers, meanwhile, continued blasting holes inside the steel-hulled ship to ease access for crews searching for the missing. The search and rescue operation will continue in tandem with the fuel removal operation.
On Monday, islanders and officials spotted an oil film on the water about 300 meters (yards) from the wreck. Absorbent panels were put around the oil to soak up the substance and officials said Tuesday it was a very thin film that didn’t present any significant levels of toxicity.
Giglio and its waters are part of a protected seven-island marine park, favored by VIPs and known for its clear waters and porpoises, dolphins and whales.
Gabrielli said he had formally asked Costa Crociere SpA, the owner of the Concordia, to come up with a plan for what to do with the innards of the ship that are floating away — the tables and chairs and other furniture that are being hauled away by barge on a daily basis.
And he said he had asked provincial authorities to designate a site on the mainland where the material can be dumped.
Costa is a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., the world’s biggest cruise operator.
It has blamed the captain, Francesco Schettino, for the disaster, saying he made an unauthorized and unapproved deviation from the route. Schettino remains under house arrest facing accusations of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all passengers were off.